Dietary Fats – what you believe might be wrong!

Fats - which ones are healthy, which one are not?

Newer scientific research disproofs nearly all the facts we believed to be true about dietary fats. Even if there are numerous well made scientific studies, the results didn’t find their way into our daily life yet. We avoid butter, vegetable oils are told to be healthy and supermarkets are full of “low-fat” products, but these decisions might seriously harm our health.

For this reason, my intention with this article is, to spread more of the well-researched news about different kinds of fat in our nutrition, what it means for our daily life, the preparation of food and the dangers of the wrong kinds of fat.

“Low Fat” kills our brain

For decades we were made to believe that “low fat” is healthy and helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases and obesity. But that’s as wrong as it can get.

LowFat-Kills-our-brain
Photo Credit: milkisprotein via VisualHunt.com

The advice for people who want to lose weight was – and often still is – to focus on fat as the enemy. Dietary Fat contains more than twice the calories per gram, compared to carbohydrates and proteins. This seems to be a valid argument to eat “low fat” if you want to “lose weight”. Obviously, you will save calories if you replace fat by nutrients with fewer calories. But the advice ignores – not only – the satiety, created by fat, which is essential to avoid being hungry all the time.

Replacing dietary fats

To make it even worse, products which are marketed to be “low fat” often contain lots of sugar and artificial fillers. If you remove one ingredient (fat) you need to replace it somehow. If there are cheap ingredients available – such as sugar – the problem seems to be solved. But this is only a winning situation for companies. They earn more with these products, the ingredients and production is cheaper and the consumer wants to eat more of these products.

Addiction and inflammation

The consumer doesn’t win at all. Sugars and simple carbohydrates have shown to be highly addictive and to cause inflammation. Most of our modern chronic-diseases are based on inflammation: Diabetes Type 2, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, auto-immune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and ADHD, just to mention a few. Most of these include inflammation of different structures in our body (joints, muscles, glands), as well as the brain [1,2].

"Low Fat" killt unser Gehirn uns ist alles andere als gesund!
Photo Credit: Pixabay
Sugar and simple carbohydrates are the main culprits in causing ailments such as type 2 diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, dementia, Alzheimer's, obesity and ADHD. #grainbrain #inflammation

Kinds of Dietary Fats

Let’s have a look at the different types of fat, their strengths, weaknesses, benefits, and possible dangers.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats were claimed to be evil for the past decades. This notion is based on a selective interpretation of scientific data from 1955 [3]. The results seemed to imply a correlation between the consumption of saturated fats (often found in animal products) and coronary heart disease. Decades later scientists analyzed the data again, this time including the data from all countries. They were not able to replicate the mentioned correlation on which the whole “low fat” movement was based on [2, 11].

Gesättigte Fette haben fälschlicherweise einen schlechten Ruf.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

In the mean time, the false results caused a lot of harm. Butter and animal fats have gotten a bad name, which is only partly correct. Milk and meat from conventional industrial livestock farming contain a mix of hormones and antibiotics, which can damage our health [2].

Not only do these animals suffer from diseases, stress and their living conditions, but the way they are fed with grains and rubbish changes the nutritional value of the animal products. This promotes inflammation in our intestines, joints, and brain, disturbs our hormonal balance and can lead to numerous health conditions. It’s not a miracle that you can’t expect great quality meat from sick animals which live under these horrible conditions [4].

Quality matters

If we choose meat, dairy, eggs, and butter [5] from pasture-raised animals (or at least labeled as “organic), the quality of the products is superior. Arguing from a health perspective, we could include these in our nutrition in moderate amounts (though dairy is a topic for another article).

The crucial aspect for our choices then, is mostly our attitude towards eating meat or animal products in general from an ethical perspective: Do you like to include animal products in your nutrition, which – partly – require to kill animals? That’s a personal choice. As long as we choose high-quality products, the aspect of sustainability is covered (to a great extend) as well [more on that you find here: 2].

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats are the secret star among the dietary fats. The “Mediterranean Diet” got a good reputation because it improves our heart health. If we focus mainly on fats, this diet is characterized by a high percentage of monounsaturated fats from olives, olive oil, avocado, and nuts.

Olivenöl ist der heimliche Star unter den gesunden Fetten.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

This kind of fat contains many nutrients like polyphenols and antioxidants. They protect our heart, reduce blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, and LDL-cholesterol (in particular they have a positive impact on the small and dense LDL particles, which attach to the walls of our arteries) [2].

The best-monounsaturated fats

Many people use olive oil to fry their foods, but that’s not a good choice. Make no mistake – olive oil is excellent, but it’s not stable enough under great heat. A great quality olive oil is perfect to drizzle over vegetables and salads. It protects our heart, improves the taste of foods and even helps to use fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E, D, K, and A.

Coconut oil (choose organic and fair trade, if possible) and even avocado oil should get a preferred space on the kitchen shelf. They are good to be used for frying but avoid burning your foods, because this will cause premature aging due to the increase of free radicals [2].

Kokosmilch und Kokosfett sollten einen festen Platz in unserer Küche bekommen.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6, are essential for our body because we can’t create them ourselves. The optimal ratio of both PUFAs is about 1:1. But our modern, highly refined nutrition contains too much Omega-6 fatty acids, while we don’t choose products often enough, which are rich in Omega-3 fats. This creates a problem because excess Omega-6 fats cause inflammation and chronic diseases such as diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity and joint paint [2, 10].

Omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acid, DHA and EPA, are essential for our health, but we don’t eat them often enough. This causes a higher risk for heart diseases, chronical inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, ADHD, depression, violence and even suicide [2, 10]. If you hear this for the first time, it sounds unbelievable. But if we consider, that 1/3 of our brains dry mass is Omega-3 fats, we understand that a lack of these essential fats impacts the functioning of our brain (thinking, mood, memory, etc.) [11].

Supplementing Omega-3 for vegetarians and vegans

Vegetarians, vegans and people who dislike fish, should seriously consider supplementing with Omega-3 fatty acids from algae. Even nuts are not a good enough alternative (even if they are very healthy) because their conversion into Omega-3 fats is poor [2].

Omega 3 Fettsäuren schützen unser Gehirn.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Omega-6

Omega-6 fatty acids are a bigger part of our modern nutrition than ever. They – unfortunately – promote inflammation in the absence of enough Omega-3 fatty acids to balance them (which is mostly the case). These inflammation are the causes of disease like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and early mortality [2, 10].

Too much Omega-6 fats in our nutrition promote inflammation. This increases the risk of diabetes, dementia and other inflammatory diseases.

Natural and healthy sources of Omega-6 fats are nuts and seeds. But our main sources are soy, refined foods, and vegetable oils.

Refined Vegetable Oils

Refined vegetable oils are everywhere, most of the oils you can buy in the supermarket as well as many packaged foods we consume contain various forms of vegetable oils, often topped with convincing health claims. Because they are cheaper than good olive oil, companies can produce with lower costs, quality doesn’t seem to be a consideration. At the same time, many families replaced butter at the breakfast table with Margarine, which contains – with a few exceptions – a high percentage of Omega-6 fatty acids. The problem with these healthy sounding fats is the extraction with heat, pressure or chemicals which damages the fats and makes them rancid and toxic [10].

Consequences of excess Omega-6 dietary fats

Whats most important with the polyunsaturated fats in our daily nutrition is the ratio between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats. Considering how common Omega-6 fats are used in different products we consume them way too often which causes inflammation and various serious disease [2, 10].

Just to make it clear: We need Omega-6 fats, but in the right amount and from natural sources. Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seed, hemp seeds, and flax seeds are great sources [2].

Kürbiskerne sind eine hervorragende Quelle von Omega-6 Fettsäuren
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is – opposed to common belief – not evil. Neither LDL (low density lipoprotein) nor HDL (high density lipoprotein) will harm your health on their own. The level of LDL in your blood is as well not a cause of heart disease. Half of the patients with heart attacks had either a low or a normal level of LDL cholesterol as a study showed [2]. Cholesterol is very important for our health – sometimes we seem to forget this fact – because it’s needed for hormone and vitamin D production, and our neurons, not only in our brain [6].

Oxidized Cholesterol

Dangerous is damaged cholesterol, so-called oxidized cholesterol, it causes inflammation and sticks to the wall of our arteries [7]. They are the consequence of sugar and starch (especially flour and grains) consumption, not of cholesterol in our foods [2]. You can request a lab test to check whether the oxidized cholesterol is too high or in a good range.

Common testing for cholesterol is not measuring oxidized cholesterol, often people even don’t know that this test is available. For various reasons, doctors prescribe “statin medication” to lower your cholesterol, if total cholesterol or LDL is a bit higher than the official guidelines recommend. But those medication have serious side effects like muscle pain, and memory issues (“statin brain”) and can increase the risk for diabetes by about 50% and more [8].

Statins – do they increase risk of dementia?

In contrast to the common practise to lower the cholesterol by medication, studies were showing that a lower level of cholesterol goes along with a higher risk of dementia, especially in older people [6]. The reason is the protective function cholesterol has on our brain. Using statins therefore should be not the first strategy after realizing higher levels of cholesterol in your lab tests. It requires a thorough balancing of risks and benefits by your physician or health care practitioner. Don’t hesitate to ask second physician for their opinion.

The times where we requested egg-white omelets and focused on low-cholesterol nutrition should be over. Newer scientific research and meta-studies were not able to show a correlation between cholesterol in our food, our blood-cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease [2].

Vorbei sind die Zeiten, in denen wir eigelbfreie Omeletts bestellt haben, in dem Glauben uns etwas Gutes zu tun!
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Trans fats

There is another kind of fats to talk about, which is the real enemy: trans fats. They are produced from plant-oils but they are chemically modified what made them toxic. They cause more dense and oxidized particles of LDL cholesterol in our blood (see passage about cholesterol) as well as inflammation, diabetes, obesity and they even increase the risk of dementia [2].

Because of their characteristics to be highly heat stable and having a long shelf life they are preferably used in highly refined and packaged foods. You often find this type of fat in margarine, coffee-creamer, shortening, fast-foods, deep fried products and pastries.

Be aware of food labels

Product with American labeling often show the content of trans fats, even if the regulations allow the company to claim products to be “trans fat free”, if they contain less than 1% of trans fats. So be cautious about that! In Germany there are – unfortunately – no rules yet to label trans fats. What you need is a sharp eye while reading the ingredient label. If you find “hardened fat”, “partly hardened fat/oil” or “hydrogenated fat” stay clear from the product, there are enough alternatives with a healthier fat composition, if you care for your brain and health.

Transfette sind toxisch und sollte unbedingt vermieden werden.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Everything new – everything different

There is plenty of scientific research to support the notion of healthy nutrition rich in natural, unprocessed fats from plant and animal origin. This kind of nutrition is connected to a lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and obesity. We need these kinds of fats for our cell membranes, hormones, regulation of inflammation and for out metabolism. Not to forget that our brain is mostly made out of fat [2].

Does this sound like deprivation?

If we want to support out general health and functioning of our brain, we should declutter vegetable oils, magerine, shortenings and refined foods with vegetable oils and trans fats. The next shopping trip to the local supermarket should include good-quality oliveoil and coconut fat, avocado and olives. Even wild and fat fish (mostly small fish) should be regular on our plate [12]. This doesn’t sound like deprivation to me…. 🙂


Sources and Notes:

  • [1] David Perlmutter (2018): Grain Brain. The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers. Little, Brown Spark.
  • [2] Mark Hyman (2018): Food: What the Heck Should I eat. Little, Brown and Company.
  • [3] Ancel Keys decided to choose the data from only 7 of the countries in the study to support the hypothesis of causality between a nutrition rich in saturated fats and heart disease. Later a group of scientists included the data of all 42 countries in their analysis and they were not able to reproduce the connection (Mark Hyman [2]).
  • [4] Studies who show a correlation between eating red meat and cancer mostly do not differentiate between the different qualities of meat. Meat from industrial live stock farming seems to increase the risk of cancer, while moderate consumption of pasture raised meat doesn’t seem to increase the risk for cancer (David Perlmutter, Mark Hyman etc.).
  • [5] Dairy deserves an own chapter or article. It should not be a major part of any adult’s nutrition. “Milk is the perfect food – if you are a calf.” (Mark Hyman).
  • [6] The war on cholesterol. Dr. David Perlmutter.
  • [7] Cholesterol important for brain health. Dr. David Perlmutter.
  • [8] Why cholesterol may not be the cause of heart disease. Dr. Mark Hyman.
  • [9] If you eat eggs you should buy organic or even better eggs from pasture raised chicken to reduce residues of medication and antibiotics. From an ethical perspective, we shouldn’t support industrial live stock farming of chicken. Their living conditions and suffering is unimaginable and we can’t eat their products (or chicken itself) with a clear conscience.
  • [10] Mark Hyman (2018): Here’s How to Determine the Healthiest Fats to Cook With. Video.
  • [11] Mark Hyman (2016): Eat Fat get thin. The surprising truth about the fat we eat – The Key to sustained weight loss and vibrant health. Yellow Kite.
  • [12] Easy to remember when you buy fish, these are the preferred kinds of fish with lower amounts of toxins: SMASH = S(ardines), M(ackerel), A(nchovis), S(almon) and H(erring) [2].

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